MICHAELS V. ROBERTS! Al Michaels recited a piece of key spin. At CBS, John Roberts checked it:
FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 10, 2004
MICHAELS V. ROBERTS: How potent can key campaign spin-points be? How powerfully can they affect voters minds? Last night, misused sports fans observed the weak mind of ABC sports ace Al Michaels. Late in the game between the Pats and the Colts—a game that was played in Foxboro, Mass.—a series of swift reversals occurred. John Madden made an innocuous remark. And his half-witted partner knew what to do. He knew he should make a dumb comment:
MADDEN (9/9/04): Its what you call a flip flop!In other words, Kerrys a flip-flopper. No, there was no sign that Madden meant his remark to have political meaning. But tiny minds—like the mind of Al Michaels—are always eager to recite approved cant. Michaels knew what Rush would have said. And so he recited himself.
Somewhat comically, Michaels recited his scripted cant on the day after Bushs latest reversal. On the front page of yesterdays New York Times, Elisabeth Bumiller limned the new flip:
BUMILLER (9/9/04): President Bush said on Wednesday that he wanted to give a new national intelligence director full budgetary authority, a sharp shift from an earlier position and an acquiescence to a major recommendation of the Sept. 11 commission.There he went again! But we all know people like Al Michaels! On the day of Bushs latest reversal, Michaels was eager to recite about Kerry. Kerry is a big flip-flopper, he confided to ABCs fans.
(For the record, we seem to recall e-mails about a similar Michaels moment last month. If any reader recalls such an incident, wed love to be refreshed.)
John Kerry is a flipper! Everyone knows that its the Bush campaigns Number One Spin—and Script Boat Veterans like Michaels cant wait to recite it. But just how accurate is the key claim? On Tuesday night, the impossible happened! John Roberts of CBS News actually tried to examine that question. Dan Rather introduced the segment on the CBS Evening News:
RATHER (9/7/04): Today, for the first time, President Bush used a term for Senator John Kerry that he previously left to others. He taunted Kerry directly by calling him a flip-flopper. As chief White House correspondent John Roberts reports, true or not, that accusation is a key part of President Bush's plan for re-election.Roberts then spent about four hundred words evaluating this central Bush claim. To watch his brief report, just click here.
Why is any of this worth discussing? Because so few news orgs have tried to do what Roberts did this evening. Everyone has heard the key Bush claim—Kerry is a major flipper. But few news orgs have actually tried to analyze this central assertion. Incredibly, Roberts asked this about Bushs claim: An effective strategy, but is it accurate? It might seem like an obvious question. But its a question few news orgs have asked.
For the record, its hard to evaluate a claim so amorphous—and you surely cant do it in four hundred words. But despite his mediums limitations, Roberts questioned two central points. First, he asked how much Kerry has flipped in his criticism of Bush-on-Iraq:
ROBERTS (9/7/04): But is it a flip-flop? Kerry has consistently said holding Saddam accountable was and remains the right thing to do. And hes been just as consistent in his opposition to the way President Bush went to war.Obviously, you cant analyze that topic in the time Roberts gave it. But have you seen any big newspaper give this matter the attention it deserves? We havent seen that happen. And weve rarely seen major news orgs report something else Roberts said:
ROBERTS (continuing directly): Kerry's other big flip-flop, according to the president: Funding for the troops in Iraq.Omigod! Roberts reported that Bush himself threatened to veto the big spending measure! For months, Bush has trashed Kerry for opposing one form of this bill. But omigod! Bush opposed forms of the famous bill too! Why, he even said that hed drop the V-bomb on a form of the bill he opposed! Now he says there was nothing complicated about this measure—a blatant misstatement, but one that Roberts didnt have time to pursue.
No, there is no way to analyze these matters in a 400-word report. But at least Roberts was willing to try; others have sleepily stared into space. And again, this is the Bush camps most central claim, a fact youd never know from the press corps inattention. Joe Klein got it right in July; Bushs mocking claim about the $87 billion is the emotional heart of his pitch against Kerry (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 7/16/04). Now its September, and a few news orgs have begun to report a few tiny morsels—morsels that put Bushs claims in some context. Incredible! On Wednesday, the New York Times told its readers that Bush said hed veto that $87 billion (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 9/8/04)! And Roberts reported that fact Tuesday night! Two months after Kleins observation, snoring, slumbering, somnolent news orgs are tossing a few tiny tidbits to voters. But no one has ever tried to sort out the full context of Bushs key claim.
Yes, news orgs slumber as Spin Marches On—marches out of the mouth of Al Michaels. Propagandists recite, even when we watch sports. But your watch-dogs? We know the watch-dogs are all on their posts because we can hear their loud snores.
SLUMBER PARTY: A full report on Bushs claim would surely mention his own reversals. The man who likes to call Kerry a flipper has authored a long line of flips himself:
Please dont send lists of other Bush flips. The Dub has reversed on many matters—a fact news orgs would normally mention in examining his central claim against Kerry. But todays news orgs dont examine; they type scripts. And even when Bush misstates his flips, they continue to slumber politely. For example, here he was on Larry King Live, turning the day into night:
KING (8/12/04): You first were opposed to the 9/11 Commission and then changed. Why?Not really! In fact, Bush reversed on Friday, September 20, 2002, ending months of active opposition. Stephen Dinan reported the flip in the next days Washington Times. President Bush reversed course yesterday and said he will support an independent commission to investigate security failures leading up to the September 11 terrorist attacks, he wrote. And everyone knew why Bush had flipped. Here was David Firestone in the New York Times:
FIRESTONE (9/21/02): The White House gave in today to growing Congressional demands for an independent investigation of last year's terrorist attacks, setting the stage for a comprehensive inquiry into the failures and vulnerabilities that made the hijackings possible.Duh! Support was growing, so Bush changed course. Kathy Kiely stated the obvious in a USA Today news report:
KIELY (9/25/02): The White House dropped its opposition last week when it became clear that the Senate would approve a commission. The top-ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Sens. Bob Graham, D-Fla., and Richard Shelby, R-Ala., were among those voting in favor.Theres nothing illegal about such flips—pols bow to reality all the time. But when Bush told King that he hadnt reversed, few in the press corps said Word The First. Nor have they examined his claim that Kerry is really the flipper.
Voters could actually learn a lot from examination of Bushs Big Claim. But your press corps slumbers and stares into air. Roberts offered four hundred words—four hundred more than most new orgs have offered. The emotional heart of Bushs pitch aint worth checking, your press corps has sleepily said.
GEORGE BUSH, STRAIGHT-SHOOTER: Theres nothing new about this, of course. But just drink in the Kafkaesque clowning described today by Paul Krugman:
KRUGMAN (9/10/04): [M]any reputable analysts think that the Bush administration routinely fakes even its short-term budget forecasts for the purposes of political spin. And the fakery in its long-term forecasts is much worse.Bushs plan will work quite well—if Congress refuses to pass Bushs plan! This sort of thing has become so routine that only Krugman bothers to note it. Al Michaels doesnt say squat.